Gun Safety: A Developmental Approach

You are considering the purchase of a gun, and you wonder how that will affect your child. The appropriate response depends on the age and maturity of the child in question.

Once you are comfortable with the gun yourself, you can make a plan for introducing it to your child.

For a toddler, simply keep the gun out of reach under lock and key. A safe or a locked drawer would be ideal. For older children, you need to strike a balance between familiarity and danger awareness. Teach your children that guns are dangerous, because they are, but you can also gradually increase their awareness and knowledge as you see them mature.

Like the oven, the blender, and the lawn mower, the gun is a tool to be regarded with respect rather than fear, and handled only with sufficient maturity and education.

Your child may already know more about guns than you think. Guns are ubiquitous on TV, in news stories, and in video games. Politicians who talk about guns often do so from a fear-based perspective, vilifying gun owners as a group.

It is up to you to make sure your child understands guns from your perspective: as a tool to keep you safe, as a hobby for responsible adults in a safe environment, and as a dangerous thing that always requires proper handling, even in the hands of experienced users.

Just as you gradually introduce your child to how a car works long before you hand over the keys, you need to approach gun safety education in a logical progression.

The Eddie Eagle Program

The National Rifle Association (NRA) sponsors a gun safety education program for Pre-K through fourth grade. It teaches the children four actions to complete if they should come across a gun.

STOP. Any weapon should be regarded as loaded, and the child simply needs to pause and reflect.

DON’T TOUCH. Handling a weapon without knowing the parts could lead to an accidental discharge. At the very least the loud noise and big boom would be very scary, and the results could be much worse.

RUN AWAY. It is best to get away from such an enticing item before you talk yourself into touching it, just a little, just this once.

TELL AN ADULT. Someone needs to make sure the gun is secured and out of the reach of children.

Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget divided child development into four phases: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Looking at those stages will help us get an idea of what information a child can handle.

Each child will grow at a different rate, and children vary in their innate learning capacity, so take this as an overall pattern rather than a description of your particular child.

The Sensorimotor Stage

From birth to twenty four months a child is in the sensorimotor stage of learning. The world is composed of the information obtained through the five senses. Everything goes in the mouth until about age three.

Information comes through trial and error. Babies respond to real objects and learn routines. The idea of object permanence is an accomplishment of this stage. When you rattle your keys, your toddler remembers that keys lead to trips in the car and responds acccordingly. Baby learns to talk and walk in this stage.

At this stage the child does not need to handle a gun. Lock your guns away and teach your child how to obey adults. The word “no” is an exciting part of a toddler’s vocabulary.

Make sure baby knows that certain things are off limits: hot stoves, sharp knives, and guns top the list of items that baby does not need to touch.

The Preoperational Stage

From age two to age seven, your child is rapidly developing language, memory, and imagination. Little children have an intuitive approach to new information, exploring in order to understand. They learn by doing and by asking questions.

At this stage your child can understand why a gun is dangerous. The explanation needs to be simple and straightforward: the gun is for Mommy and Daddy to use. Mommy and Daddy follow the rules so they don’t get hurt.

When your child has good impulse control and and understanding of the consequences of disobedience, you can start the introduction to your gun. Unload the gun and teach the child the names of the parts: trigger, slide, cylinder, barrel, grip.

Make sure your child knows what happens when the trigger is squeezed and where the bullet comes out. If the child wants to touch the gun at this point, it should be unloaded and with adult supervision. The gun then needs to go back to a place where the child does not have access.

Emphasize that children do not need to play with guns. Be aware that your child will repeat anything you say to anyone who asks.

I have heard my opinions simplified and magnified in the mouth of my child. The school nurse once called me about a bump on the playground and related her amusement at hearing my political opinions coming out of the mouth of a first grader on a daily basis.

Provide a simple, clear explanation of gun safety that will not earn you a phone call from your child’s teacher or a concerned family member.

Toward the end of this period many children will be ready for a hands on experience with a gun. Starting with a BB gun will mitigate some of the noise and kickback inherent to firearms. Even a BB gun requires eye and ear protection.

Before using any gun, your child must understand Jeff Cooper’s rules of gun safety:

  • Always treat every gun as if it is loaded
  • Never point at anything you are not willing to destroy
  • Keep your finger off the trigger
  • Be sure of your target and what is beyond it

The Concrete Operational Stage

From approximately age eight to age eleven, children are becoming more logical and methodical. They can now manipulate symbols and are more aware of the world around them. Analytical thinking begins.

This is the stage at which we started introducing our daughter to guns.

Our daughter first held her father’s unloaded gun with supervision around the age of eight. She started with a BB gun at age nine, and at ten she has shot a .22 revolver, a .22 pistol, and a .357 Magnum rifle.

Most recently she has shot an AR-15. To watch her experience, go to our YouTube channel, Double Eagle Gunworks. She has also written a few blog posts about her experience with guns.

Some of her classmates started much earlier and have even gone hunting with their parents. This is a matter of knowing your child and your family’s culture. I grew up in a home without guns and wanted to approach gun education slowly because I was learning along with my child.

She knows not to touch the gun in the absence of an adult, and we have taught her the basics of eye and ear protection as well.

I asked her to point out on photos where the bullets are loaded, where the bullets come out, and where the trigger is on a revolver, a pistol, a rifle, and an AR-15. She answered without hesitation and volunteered the proper placement of the AR for shooting.

She doesn’t like the noise of the AR. She also has strong opinions on the level of kickback with the models she has shot. Her favorite is the Henry Big Boy Lever Action rifle.

The Formal Operational Stage

Around age twelve and continuing into adulthood, a child begins to understand abstract concepts. Now the child can hypothesize about what a given situation will cause. Rights and responsibilities become a part of the conversation. We can apply learned concepts to new situations.

Now you can talk with your child about what it means to carry a concealed weapon to protect yourself and others from harm. You can point out where the stories on television have the right information and how your point of view may not be adequately represented.

We have already started commenting on the political ramifications of gun ownership with our daughter, and of course she has been absorbing our opinions on this and every other topic for years. She is about to make the leap from parroting our ideas to processing the information through her own filter.

We are educating our daughter with the aim of keeping her safe while nurturing her curiosity about the world and developing her sense of responsibility.

The First Shooting Experience

Make the first shooting experience brief and unpressured. Use a gun with a light trigger pull and not too much noise, such as a BB gun or a .22. Review the rules and follow them yourself. Children watch everything their parents do. Eye and ear protection are not optional.

If your child has a negative first experience with shooting, don’t press for a redo right away. Curiosity will bring him or her back again.

When he or she is ready to try again, be open to a visit to the gun range for an older child. Call ahead because gun ranges vary on the age of the child they will allow in the shooting area.

The age at which a citizen of our state can carry concealed is twenty one. Our daughter will be prepared for responsible gun ownership well before she straps on a holster and steps out into the world on her own.

This article is for general information only. I don’t know your child and I don’t know when he or she will be ready to learn about guns.

When you are ready to teach your child about firearms, go to Arrowood Firearm Safety and Training. The link will take you to an Eddie Eagle program in the Upstate of South Carolina. Search “Eddie Eagle” on the internet to find a program in your area.

When you are ready for your own training, contact Double Eagle Gunworks LLC. Chris can teach you individually or in groups on the basics, or you can advance the skills you have already begun. See our calendar to register for a Concealed Weapons Permit class (adults only). Subscribe to our newsletter to keep track of our events.

Use our coupon code “double10” for ten percent off your first purchase at the following online stores:

Crimson Trace

Caldwell Shooting

Tipton Cleaning 


Wheeler Tools

Frankford Arsenal

Carla Pittman, MS, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and the mother of a 10-year-old who is learning to shoot safely. She is married to a Concealed Weapons Permit Instructor who takes gun safety very seriously.

Carla Pittman

Carla is a Speech Pathologist working in Home Health by day and a blogger by night. She married Chris in 2008 and is working to help him unite his love of guns with his passion for teaching others to carry safely. Her other impetus for blogging is to make Americans aware of their Constitutional rights, which are at risk in the current political environment.

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